Yemen’s dream of a civil society suffocated by religion and tribalism
A national dialogue was supposed to help Yemen find a new way but instead it has been dominated by the traditional powers
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Sana’a
The Guardian, Thursday 6 February 2014
On a recent Thursday afternoon in Sana’a, a group of lawyers, journalists, unemployed pundits and one poet, gathered to discuss the politics and times of Yemen in the office of a prominent lawyer that doubles as a weekly literary salon.
Under thick, eye-watering, blue and grey layers of cigarette smoke, the men resembled a stack of fallen domino pieces as they reclined sideways on mattresses arranged around the walls with their elbows resting on hard stuffed cushions.
They were committed democrats and passionate human rights advocates, who had opposed the autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and documented his regime’s abuses and corruption long before the Arab spring revolutions.
They were diverse bunch, often at odds with each other, with principles perhaps too naive to be considered serious politics, yet they shared a dream: a civil state in Yemen, one day.
The group was opposing the new regime that had emerged from the revolution, but their passions had waned and been replaced with a sense of defeat and betrayal, symbolised and distilled into one word – Mövenpick.
The Mövenpick is a hotel in Sana’a, an architectural monstrosity of glass and concrete with manicured lawns, marbled foyers and gilded furniture worthy of an oil boom town designed exclusively for the privileged elites of Yemen.
From the hill where it sits, contained by blast walls and with checkpoints manned by private security guards in wrap-around shades, the capital, Sana’a, appears as a far and dusty place inhabited by the downtrodden and wretched.
Over the past 11 months the Mövenpick meeting rooms and dining halls have been the setting for the national dialogue conference, which has brought together tribes-people, politicians, Islamists, along with representatives of civil society and the revolutionary youth.
The conference was a big part of a deal brokered by the UN and the gulf cooperation council that ushered in a transitional period after Saleh give up power to his then unknown deputy, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who later was voted in as interim president, being the sole candidate in the election.
Under the terms of the transition, ministerial posts were apportioned between the opposition and ruling party, and the army, which, dominated by Saleh’s relatives, was given a facelift with a purge of some commanders.
Chaperoned by the UN envoy Jamal Benomar, the national dialogue conference was supposed to address all the problems of Yemen and prepare for a new constitution and free elections.
But instead the dialogue, dominated from the start by the old traditional powers, finally concluded four months late on Saturday, its final act the publication of a report with about 1,400 recommendations which have extended the transitional period and allowed an extra year to draft a charter and vote on it.
Meanwhile, for those downtrodden inhabitants on view from the Mövenpick’s gilded rooms Yemen is still no closer to being a functioning state.
A spate of assassinations of politicians has plagued Sana’a, threatening the central government, which all but disappears once you leave the large cities.
The weakness of the state was laid bare when the local al-Qaida franchise, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, recently stormed into a hospital at the defence ministry compound, killing dozens of people. CCTV footage showed gunmen executing medics and patients.
On Monday, gunmen kidnapped a European oil employee in Sana’a, hours after the town was rocked by overnight explosions; the second abduction of a westerner in four days. Meanwhile US drones roam the Yemeni skies with impunity killing militants and civilians alike.
Inside the lawyer’s office the assembled company exploded with simultaneous jabs of anger when someone mentioned the conference’s final communiqué, the Benomar document and its proposals of federalism.
“How can you talk about federalism if you don’t even have a state apparatus?” bellowed the broad shouldered, deep voiced, host from his spot in one corner of the room. “There is a land grab and it’s a political sham. While they are killing each other in the streets they sit and negotiate in Sana’a.”
The powerful tribal and political figures who attended the national dialogue conference were the same people who were in a mad race to grab land and impose de-facto realities on the ground, pulling and dragging Yemen in different directions like a group of thieves pulling on an old stolen jacket and tearing it apart.
“They are creating a new situation in Yemen, based on regionalism. With all the negative aspects of the Yemeni political parties and internal struggles it was better than what will happen next – because the next conflicts will be between those of the same region … apart from the conflict between different regions,” said Sami Ghaleb, a journalist and authority on Yemeni history.
A black and white portrait of Ibrahim al-Hamdi, the stern, charismatic, former Yemeni president, forever clad in military gear, hung above their heads, a reminder of all their unattained dreams for their country. In the 1970s Hamdi tried to build a modern state. He tried to curtail the tribes’ power, but was assassinated a few years into his rule.
Bottles of water, cans of juice and coke, as well as cigarettes and plastic bags holding qat were arranged before each man. The men followed their rituals methodically, debating and chewing the herbal stimulant.
Shoots of qat were picked, the delicate and moist leaves plucked with the tips of fingers, thrust into the side of mouths, and chewed on silently and deliberately. With a theatrical flourish the naked twigs were tossed into the middle of the room.
They talked about the “North”, the former Yemen Arab Republic, where a sectarian war is raging between the Huthis (Zaydi Shia rebels) and Salafis in neighbouring areas.
Fearing Huthi expansion, an alliance of tribes and militia fighters associated with the leading Sunni Islamic party, al-Islah, had joined the fight alongside the Salafis.
The war was no more a sectarian war, added someone, because the tribes, many of whom were Zaydis themselves, were fighting through fear of Huthi expansion and what its members represented as a rival power. The war was now both religious and tribal.
Hums of agreement rose from the audience. The rhythm picked up, words came rapidly and qat piled up in the middle of the room.
In the south, the separatists were demanding full independence and showing signs of evolving quickly into an armed insurgency with xenophobic talk of southern purity, and frequent attacks on government posts.
Someone at the meeting asked rhetorically – when faced by indiscriminate force by the army and police what do you do? Years of peaceful demonstrations had yielded them nothing but more oppression and more land grabs by the northern sheikhs, said a writer at the meeting.
That week a tank shell had killed 14 civilians who had gathered for a funeral of a killed fighter.
But the separatists were splitting, tribes from the oil-rich southern province of Hadramout had taken over government institutions, laid siege to oil fields and were calling for autonomy for their own region.
The room darkened and fell silent. A single battery-powered neon light, placed next to the door, cast long shadows against the dark walls. Beyond the window, Sana’a swam in darkness. A disgruntled sheikh had cut off the city’s main electricity supply lines that passed through his tribal land.
Hours later the men gathered up their cigarette packs, bottles of water and what was left of the qat into plastic bags and moved out of the room.
They retreated to their homes, filling their Facebook pages with warnings of coming civil wars.
Leaving the meeting, Ghaleb accompanied a poet and another friend to a nearby cafe, a place with sooty walls, narrow metal benches and a stove piled with huge copper kettles. They sat in silence drinking sweet milk tea spiced with cinnamon and cardamom.
Ghaleb, the eldest of the three, had once run one of Yemen’s most progressive newspapers, but under Saleh the paper was closed and he was put on trial with two of his writers. He was pardoned later, but the paper never saw the light of day again.
He said that most of the recent history of Yemen had been the struggle to build a modern civil state, each attempt facing resistance from traditional powers of authority – religious or tribal.
Sometimes through political intrigue, at other times through civil war or outside interference, these traditional powers had managed to repeatedly subvert efforts to change Yemeni society.
Ghaleb said: “These traditional powers are very adaptable and can change their shape to ride the revolutionary tide and subvert the change from within. The same is happening now. These same tribes, the same people and their sons, have co-opted the revolution and became so-called revolutionaries to save their interests.”
One of the friends, a journalist who had turned to a more lucrative job in advertising, said: “Every day I feel I’m suffocating, I want to run away from politics. Go somewhere I tell myself, take a holiday. Then I wake up and I start calling the same people and I end up talking about politics again – there is no running away.”
Outside the cafe, under a concrete flyover, a group of soldiers gathered around a small fire lit next to their military truck. Ninety people were killed in the revolution when the army opened fire at demonstrators at that same spot.
“I want a coup d’etat now. At least we can have a clear enemy – the people who are destroying this country now are calling themselves revolutionaries,” said the third friend.
Late at night, the streets of Sana’a were empty save for a few soldiers in oversized Russian trench coats and people scavenging through piles of garbage. Pools of light from humming generators interrupted the darkness and a million stars shone brilliantly in the sky. The poet walked aimlessly through the quiet streets, passing the ancient walls of the parliament building.
“During the revolution people walked like they had wings; any time they could unfurl them and fly,” he mused, opening his arms and stretching them into the darkness.

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